School discipline was one of the most prominent education issues this year. A major theme within the discipline conversation has been the large discipline disparities by race/ethnicity and gender, which are exhibited as early as pre-K. These disparities drew attention to the important issue of implicit bias – i.e., the idea that we all harbor unconscious attitudes that tend to favor individuals from some groups (whites, males), while putting others (people of color, women) at a disadvantage. This research, which the Kirwan Institute has reviewed in great depth, strongly suggests that a double standard exists – one that is more lenient toward white students and girls – when assessing and addressing challenging student behaviors.
A second area of focus has been the shortcomings of policies, such as “zero tolerance,” which, have been shown to be ineffective in the establishment of order and injurious to suspended or expelled students – who, as a result, are more likely to fall behind academically, drop out of school, and/or become disconnected from the educational system. Nevertheless, many still believe that harsh policies are sometimes necessary to keep the majority of students safe, maintain order and establish a positive school climate. So, do suspensions and expulsions really help create an environment conducive to learning for all students?
A new paper by Brea L. Perry and Edward W. Morris, published in the most recent issue of American Sociological Review, suggests that harsh discipline practices actually aren’t good for anyone, including non-suspended students.
The researchers used data from the Kentucky School Discipline Study to examine whether and how out-of-school suspensions affect the academic achievement of non-suspended students. They found:
High levels of out-of-school suspensions in a school over time are associated with declining academic achievement among non-suspended students, even after adjusting for a school’s overall level of violence and disorganization.
On the flip side, Perry and Morris also note that the moderate use of exclusionary discipline policies is benign, but that overly punitive environments are toxic and impede learning. They elaborate:
These results contradict the most common rationale for maintaining tough exclusionary discipline policies – namely, that removing disruptive students creates a safe, orderly environment conducive to learning for students who conform to school rules.
As Perry and Morris argue, removing a student from the school context may not be the individual act that it might seem. Rather, it occurs within an existing web of social relations and, as such, it affects student networks and the messages and meanings that are shared through these relationships.
The researchers point to two underlying mechanisms that may explain these results. First, at the individual level, a high suspension environment can create a heightened sense of anxiety. Second, at the school level, suspensions disrupt student communities, creating unstable, socially fragmented environments, which undermine the social bonds that undergird positive outcomes.
To be clear, safe and orderly school environment is a necessary precondition for academic achievement, and this study demonstrates that suspension, used in moderation, does not have an adverse impact on non-suspended students. However, the authors conclude, “effective school discipline is not achieved simply thorough punishment and exclusion.”
So, what are the other tools and strategies that schools and educators can use to prevent the occurrence of challenging behaviors – and promote the display of appropriate behaviors – in schools and classrooms?
The December 2014 issue of Review of Educational Research provides some answers. Andrea Flower and her colleagues review interventions that rely on the “Good Behavior Game” (GBG), an empirically based group behavior management strategy that dates back to the 1960s. The goals of the review, which included 22 studies, were to quantify the effects of GBG on various challenging behaviors and to understand features of the intervention that might affect the magnitude of outcomes.
The researchers’ verdict is that the GBG might be considered as a promising practice for the classroom, particularly for addressing externalized challenging behaviors (e.g., noncompliance, disruption, aggression) as well as distractibility or off-task behaviors. GBG, which does not require extensive training, has been implemented successfully by individuals in different school roles (e.g., classroom teachers, librarians, lunchtime staff etc.) and under a variety of conditions. The researchers note that the correct use of rewards is a crucial component of the GBG strategy.
Of course, the Good Behavior Game is but one of many tools available for educators, administrators and parents, and may not be the answer for all grades (it mostly has been used in the early elementary grades), for all students (e.g., those with disability status) or for all behaviors (e.g., problematic internalizing behavior).
In any case, the good news is that the conversation on discipline has gained momentum, and there are increasing resources (for example, see here, here, and here), research and approaches (e.g., restorative practices) that can be leveraged to address these important issues. Just yesterday, the American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF) hosted an informative webinar on this issue. The two studies I highlight here add to this conversation by providing further evidence that: 1) harsh policies are detrimental for both suspended and non-suspended students; and 2) there are promising strategies, some of which have been used effectively for a long time, which can help schools handle challenging behaviors in a more positive, holistic and preventive way. We need to make sure that information about these approaches, as well as the resources, training, and supports that are needed to enact them properly, are available to schools that would benefit from them.
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